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Rancher Wil Anderson (John Wayne) has a problem; he has to get 400 head of cattle to a railhead, and all the men in the area have left for the Gold Rush. His own sons have long since turned bad and landed in trouble, so Anderson is left to hire on a group of schoolboys, the oldest of whom is fifteen. With no other recourse, Anderson must take the youngsters and shape them not only into cowhands, but men. The group faces all sorts of hardships along the way, but the biggest problem is a group of thugs (led by Bruce Dern as "Longhair") who want to take the cattle off their hands.
In The Cowboys (1972), what could be a fairly routine Western is saved by the screenplay of Irving Ravetch, adapted from a novel by William Dale Jennings. Ravetch and wife Harriet Frank Jr. comprised one of Hollywoods great screenwriting teams, pooling their resources on such films as The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960), Norma Rae (1979), Hud (1963) and the excellent but rarely-seen Conrack (1974). The pair showed a particular fondness for William Faulkner's work, turning The Long Hot Summer (1958), The Sound and the Fury (1959) and The Reivers (1969) into acclaimed screenplays. Their scripts were marked by their intelligence, believable character development and the humanity that they could bring to their characters without ever dipping into mawkish sentimentality.
The Cowboys, under the directorial hand of Mark Rydell, was no exception. Though some don't consider Wayne's performance to be up to his turns in Stagecoach (1939) or The Quiet Man (1952), it's hard to think of a seventies film where Wayne is more in his element than in The Cowboys. Roscoe Browne also excels as Nightlinger, the ragtag group's cook and all-around mule skinner. Ravetch's screenplay deftly brings Wayne's young charges from boyhood to adult life while avoiding the cliches of many coming-of-age movies. The end result is a rousing movie that embraces many of the traditional themes of the Western, while making the point that life on the frontier was undoubtedly a lot harder and more treacherous than the Hollywood Western would have us believe.
Screenplay:Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank Jr., William Dale Jennings (novel)
Art Direction:William Kiernan
Cast:John Wayne (Wil Anderson), Roscoe Lee Brown (Jedediah Nightlinger), Bruce Dern (Asa Watts), Colleen Dewhurst (Mrs. Kate Collingwood), Alfred Barker Jr. (Clyde Potter)
by Jerry Renshaw